Midnight in the Desert

A completely off topic and off the wall question for Root Simple readers this morning: how many of you spent the 90s drifting off to sleep with Art Bell’s radio show playing in the background? The sad news of Art Bell’s passing back in April escaped my notice until this week and I’ve been reflecting on all those evenings Kelly and I spent listening to tales of inter-dimensional time-traveling Sasquatches, Y2K panic chatter and “shadow people.”

For those of you not familiar with Bell, he hosted the third most popular radio show in the U.S., Coast to Coast, which focused mostly on paranormal topics. Bell’s show resembled 19th century newspapers where “fake news” tales of moon men, lizard people and mysterious airships mixed with the more mundane events of the day. Nineteenth century readers knew that the moon men tales were fake just as Bell would frequently describe his show as “just entertainment.”

Bell was not one to let epistemological correctness get in the way of a good yarn. He was a skilled listener who would patiently, over the course of hours, draw tall tales out of his guests. In an approach reminiscent of William James’ stance on religion, Bell would suspend judgement on his topics knowing that obsessing on the “truth” of a subject would get in the way of excavating its meaning.

If you don’t know Bell’s work I would commend that you listen to what I think might be one of the true masterpieces in the history of radio, his long interviews with a mysterious guest known as Mel Waters. Waters claimed to own property containing a hole, more than 80,000 feet deep, west of Ellensberg, Washington. Among the features of the hole: the power to restore life to deceased animals, birth mysterious seal creatures from within the carcass of lambs and produce impossible objects such as 1943 Roosevelt dimes. During a commercial break on Water’s first appearance on Coast to Coast, listeners started searching the area around Ellensberg on an early internet satellite service called Terraserver. Mysteriously, Water’s property seemed to have been blacked out. Bell later claimed to have heard of military activity around Ellensberg. After his last appearance in December of 2002, claiming to have found another hole in Nevada, Waters disappeared never to be heard from again.

If you haven’t heard the Mel’s Hole story here you go:

And Part II:

Bell’s show had an eeriness to it aided by the fact that he was broadcasting live from a remote compound in the Nevada desert in the middle of the night surrounded by his cats and ham radio gear. Bell’s show was the soundtrack of the American West’s vast deserts and forests, a landscape of secret government programs where the only sound is the mating call of lonely, inter-dimensional Sasquatches.

If you’d like to catch up on your Art Bell listening you can download 1,200 episodes (!) here.

Getting Out of Your Head

During his unsuccessful presidential campaign Senator Marco Rubio suggested that, “We need more welders and less philosophers.” Matthew Crawford in his 2015 book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction proves why it’s important to be a welder and a philosopher.

Crawford’s believes that certain unquestioned philosophical assumptions dating from the enlightenment are at the heart of our current malaise, specifically the notion that we are all independent and separate logical beings with the location of our consciousness and ethics living entirely within our noggins.

Immanuel Kant and René Descartes are the baddies of Crawford’s book, the advocates of this separateness and the related notion of idealism, the philosophical term for the idea that reality is only comprehensible through internal mental imagery. Idealism will lead you to skepticism about the nature of reality which will, in turn, send you on a trajectory towards the absurd musings of Elon Musk who, apparently, can’t tell if he’s living in a simulation. People who wonder if they are in a simulation tend not to be the people who garden, dig ditches, weld things, read this blog or form meaningful face to face communities.

It shouldn’t be surprising that our culture’s philosophical assumptions about reality lead to things like virtual reality, video games and cryptocurrencies. Through positive examples such as a hockey player, a motorcycle racer, a jazz musician, a glass blower and an organ maker Crawford shows us a way out of our simulated and alienated reality.

And we can look to Crawford himself as an example of where we should take our education system. As both a motorcycle mechanic and a first rate philosopher Crawford proves that a well balanced person can tackle a blown head gasket by day and wrestle with Heidegger in the off hours.

The Year We Gave Up Our Smart Phones

Image: Glavo.

In the year 2023 we, the humans of this beautiful earth, gave up our smart phones. Too many gardens went untended, too much important work got interrupted and too many accidents happened. In the years leading up to 2023 we came to understand our smart phones the way 20th century folks came to understand cigarettes, as addictive, unhealthy and destructive.

Just like the cigarette executives the tech billionaires got our kids hooked to their unhealthy products. They ruthlessly mined our attention for dollars. Consider it lucky when those same tech billionaires got stranded on the Bezos-Musk Martian colony. When the second great recession and fourth dot com bust of 2030 rolled around Space-X stock tanked and the tech bros couldn’t afford to pay for their return trip to Earth. Now all they have to eat is freeze dried Beef Stroganoff in a Martian prison of their own making. We used their stranding as an opportune moment to rid our culture of the things that were holding us back.

My own personal smart phone addiction recovery path began back in 2018. I was building the most complex project I’ve ever attempted, a chest of drawers. It required intense concentration and I kept getting interrupted by the ping of text messages, junk phone calls and those moments where I just had to check Twitter (a now defunct “unsocial” media company). Let’s not even get into all those moments times I caught myself watching viral cat videos when a real cat was sitting in front of me. Or the fact that I lacked the patience to read books. I came to see my smart phone addiction as not just a personal vice but also as the invisible hand of the tech billionaires who were personally interrupting my work for their own commercial gain. They had made our lives their marketplace and it was well past time to drive them out.

The tech bros had used smart phones to change our relationship to the world. Even activities like taking a vacation were no longer about gathering experiences but instead about using, “photography and social media to build a personal brand.”(1) I came to see that my smart phone got in the way of the direct experience of life. What if I just did nice things for the sake of doing those things rather than “building my personal brand?” What if a measure of success became making something that was so well put together and so appropriate for its setting that nobody noticed it?

The revolution came sooner than expected. With the tech bros locked up on Mars we freed ourselves from the shackles of “surveillance capitalism.” For a time some of us went back to flip phones but that interim period didn’t last long. In the end we all realized that we just didn’t want our work and leisure interrupted and monetized. And no longer would there be suicidal smart phone factory workers or wars over rare earth metals. We now have much more time to create, to garden, to make beautiful things, to take care of our loved ones and neighbors. We devote our time to the things that matter.

Maplewoodshop: Saving Shop Class

In U.S. schools shop class has been sacrificed to the Moloch of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Ninety percent of shop classes have been eliminated with the exception of a few robotics programs. The result, ironically, is STEM graduates so out of touch with the physical world that they design things impossible to build.

Image: Maplewoodworking

Maplewoodshop seeks to reverse this trend with an innovative woodworking program that trains teachers to integrate hand tool woodworking into their lessons plans. Teachers who graduate from Maplewoodshop’s training get a rolling box containing all the tools they need to teach woodworking classes in any room. Maplewoodshop is a great example of not letting perfection be the enemy of the good: we’re not going to get shop classes back any time soon but that doesn’t mean that we can’t do something.

You can listen to an interview with Mike Schloff, founder of MapleWoodShop here.

On the Possibilities and Problems of Groups

I’ve had several conversations with friends recently about the difficulty of organizing groups. Too often a bunch of people get together for a worthwhile cause only to see numbers dwindle, enthusiasm flag and, worse, enmity and strife set in. It’s not that I can somehow claim to be above the problem. I’m guilty of disappearing, of “ghosting” my fellow group members once the initial excitement of the collective idea wanes.

Michel Foucault called our modern society a “carceral archipelago,” a prison made up of individual cells all watched over by an all seeing eye. The advertising that surrounds us has much to do with our carceral condition. Modern capitalism emphasizes our individuality–“Do it your way!”–while, thanks to social media, simultaneously monitoring our every mouse click. It’s hard to argue with Foucault’s prescience in, what I like to think of as our make-your-own-individual-burrito “Chipotle age.”

In order to accomplish any worthwhile goal we have to form groups. Human beings are not meant to be lone agents. The Inuit people I met on a trip to Greenland have a word for individualists, “wanderers,” and in the Inuit culture wanderers are considered possessed of a supernatural malevolence. While most of us don’t have to face the challenges of an arctic climate, the fact is that our individualization has left us all lonely and ineffective.

And yet, the way out of the prison is not to make forming groups an end in itself. This is Mark Zuckerberg great error. At the Senate hearing he said, over and over that his highest goal is “connectivity.” People can connect to feed the homeless, rescue animals or plant trees. Unfortunately, people can also connect to promote racism and hate, something the internet has made worse.

I wish I had an easy set of points on how to form positive, long lasting and effective groups or just how to be a better member of a group. I don’t. But, as in most worthwhile tasks, perhaps the answer is to take things one step at a time. We, in Western countries, have been on a downward individualization spiral since the 1500s. It might take just as long to climb out. Perhaps we need to begin just by sharing meals together, hanging out more and simply doing nothing, but doing nothing together.